With a cowboy hat on his head and a smile on his face, Judge Ken Starr walked out of the sleet into Colorado Christian University’s (CCU) student center in Lakewood on Friday morning.
Before an audience of a few dozen, CCU President Donald Sweeting interviewed the constitutional lawyer, academic, and defender of President Trump in the recent U.S. Senate impeachment trial.
“Judge Starr is a wonderful friend of the university,” said Jeff Hunt, the director of the Centennial Institute – CCU’s conservative think tank. “Ken has argued 36 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including during his service as a U.S. Solicitor General.”
Starr, “was appointed to serve as counsel for five investigations, including Whitewater from 1994 to 1999,” Hunt said, when he came to national prominence probing the Clinton family’s real estate dealings and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Starr characterized his role in the Trump trial as “specific – it was somewhat limited…. I spoke to the history and the constitutional framework.”
“I was also firmly of the view that what he had done was unwise,” Starr said, “but not an impeachable act.”
“I’m really interested in politics and the current political situation,” said Peter Schleicher, a freshman accounting student at CCU attending the event.
In particular, Schleicher was interested in “the impeachment trials of President Trump,” he said, “and the age of impeachment and how that is shaping our political system going forward.”
The conversation, which was co-hosted by the Federalist Society, a conservative group dedicated to constitutional originalism, was live-streamed in light of recent news that the CCU campus would soon be shuttered over coronavirus fears.
“This is a time of crisis management,” said Starr, who has held high-ranking posts at Pepperdine and Baylor Universities, and that “American higher education is responding in a very impressive way.”
“Thank goodness for technology, and I think it’s going to be a great experiment,” he said.
Starr lamented the decreasing role the Christian faith has played at American colleges and universities. He pointed out that both Harvard and Yale Universities were founded as Christian institutions in 1636 and 1701 respectively.
“We want to preserve these great, great traditions of truth and freedom,” Starr said.
Sweeting was quick to praise Starr as a morally-upright university administrator and strong proponent of Christian higher education, but the interviewer chose not to ask about how Starr’s academic career ended.
Mixed Record on Sexual Misconduct
In 2016, Starr was ousted from his role as president and chancellor of Baylor University over his non-action regarding sexual assault on campus.
A report by the Wall Street Journal found that between 2011 and 2016, 17 female Baylor students had been sexually or domestically assaulted by university football players. An internal inquiry revealed a “fundamental failure” on the part of unnamed senior administrators to implement Title IX.
Starr’s apparent disregard for the numerous rapes which happened under his watch is striking given that he’s best known for his stint as an independent counsel investigating the sexual misconduct of former President Bill Clinton.
In 2018, Starr released a memoir chronicling this era of his career. It sparked a good deal of media attention then given its relevance to the impeachment saga of President Trump.
The renewed focus on his legacy led some to question his treatment of Monica Lewinsky – President Clinton’s former mistress – which included aggressive, threatening interrogation tactics and broadcasting the intimate details of her sexual life to the entire nation.
“I completely reject the suggestion there was bullying,” Starr said to the Guardian in 2018. “We were clear and emphatic: you’ve engaged in very serious misconduct. Do you want to cooperate or not?”
Back in the late nineties, Donald Trump – then a Clinton supporter – repeatedly criticized Starr’s performance as an independent counsel.
“I think Ken Starr is a lunatic, I really think that Ken Starr is a disaster,” Trump said to MSNBC in 1998, before describing the judge as a “freak” with “something in his closet” to the New York Times in 1999.
Still, Starr said “It was an honor to be asked,” by President Trump himself to contribute to his defense at his U.S. Senate impeachment trial.
Problems with Post-Modernism
Starr and Sweeting both held a clear disdain for the post-modernist philosophical trends that they say have swept the nation’s institutions of higher education in recent times.
“There’s a regression at universities where everything becomes subjective, and it’s starting to threaten even some of the classical disciplines and sciences,” Sweeting said. “It’s frightening.”
Starr bemoaned what he views as the refusal of many academics to address fundamental truths.
“The other thing about freedom is we’re not afraid of the truth. Bring it on,” he said. “But we do believe there is such thing as the truth.”
Starr characterized these new ways of thinking as “really dangerous philosophies for life… that don’t honor life” or “the dignity of ‘we the people.’”
This reading of the current intellectual climate aligns closely with his originalist, textually-oriented interpretation of the constitution.
“It is law, and law has meaning,” Starr said, pulling his pocket edition of the constitution out of his inside blazer jacket for the audience to see. “You must follow the law as it’s written as opposed to the law as you hope it would be.”
“The constitution is law and the words have meaning,” he said, “but they don’t have any darn meaning you might want to pour into it.”
Thoughts From a Student
Schleicher enjoyed the talk and was still processing what he had heard immediately afterwards.
He said the constitution “was made for a certain specific period of time, and in their foresight,” the founding fathers “allowed it to be interpreted in different ways” by leaving “vague areas of the constitution that needed to be filled in as we move along.”
Schleicher said the founders “gave us the ability to amend that constitution if it’s wrong, so I think with what we’re given we should interpret it in its original intent.”
Still, he said that “it is our prerogative to change those words if we see them as unfit for the current times.”